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Automatic or the people? The rapidly changing nature of work

Processes like car manufacturing are already automated and are becoming more so. The practice is safer and more efficient, but requires fewer workers. The author asks: “What is our responsibility vis-à-vis places devastated by deindustrialization and automation? Photo of a Ford factory, by Getty Images.

The automation is already here: what is our responsibility to the people and communities left behind?

Somewhere on the Minnesota Iron Range, a railroad engineer tucks an 85-car train under the unloading chute of a taconite plant. One by one, each wagon is filled with almost 100 tons of iron ore. The contents of this train will be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the company. If all goes well, and it usually does, the whole process remains efficient and safe. All workers sit in front of control panels without any danger.

All a of them.

It takes one person to load a Taconite train. Of course, there are other staff involved. Someone has to drive the train. Technicians are ready to help if something breaks. But a person with a finger on a button does the heavy lifting.

Think about the incredible accomplishment that represents. In the annals of North American mining, countless legions of miners have died loading trains. Sometimes the ore crushed them. Sometimes the cars moved on the tracks, crushing the workers between them. Ruthless wheels and rails amputated limbs, forever disabling the lucky ones and bleeding the rest.

Automated loading chutes save lives. How many of today’s Iron Rangers exist because their parents or grandparents were not killed in an accident? Conservatively, I would say thousands. I am one of them.

And then think about the benefits. Certainly, the person loading the trains today earns more than an immigrant miner could have dreamed of earning in 1922. The average Minnesota iron miner’s salary approaches $70,000, with much higher amounts possible with overtime. Experienced workers easily exceed six figures. Indeed, this person earns as much or more than the management a century ago. But the cost is worth it to the company. Several dozen poorly paid laborers once earned lower wages, which nevertheless, in total, far exceeded what the loading technician now receives.

In the meantime, today’s worker will not be killed on the job, will retain their training, and will have a strong incentive to serve the mine for decades, not just a year or two. By pressing a button once, this worker pays his own salary. Every button pressed after that is pure, rich sauce.

It would be wrong to say that automation is coming to the American workforce. It’s already here. Automation — better than any partisan political talking point — more clearly explains economic conditions in places like the Iron Range, Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. On the one hand, the devastation is enormous. On the other hand, the miracle of good, secure, well-paying jobs remaining leaves businesses and entire industries impervious to local criticism.

This paradox represents the global challenge of our future economy. The matter requires attention no matter where you live. Cities and towns across America will either overcome this problem or continue to suffer from it.

Because automation no longer limits its toll to industrial jobs.

Target race

Last month, Minnesota-based Target Corporation gained national coverage for raising wages in multiple markets. In parts of the United States, Target workers will now earn $24 an hour, a major boost in an industry where average wages are below $15 an hour.

Companies like Target set their salaries based on local job markets. If you live somewhere with lots of jobs and few workers, you’ll do better. If you live in a place where there are few jobs and many people are looking for them, you will probably earn less.

So $24 an hour is not a handout, but rather a stark assessment of what it will take to keep stores open in certain markets. For nearly a year, we have seen wages rise amid what some are calling a “crisis” of people “not wanting to work”. This loaded statement is hard to prove, however, as we see jobless claims plummeting even as COVID-era wage subsidies come to an end.

In fact, many factors are at the root of the current job shortage. Older workers are retiring or reducing their activity. Teenagers have become overloaded and deeply anxious automatons. The working poor have reached a gruesome equilibrium in which they cannot afford the rent or childcare needed to continue working in the service sector.

So wages go up! (With inflation!) But the other thing that keeps stores running smoothly is automation. The reason you can beep your own stacks, orange juice, and glittery pantyhose that say “Juicy” walking out of Target is also the reason the person stocking the shelves might make more money. It just means there are fewer jobs in total and more flexibility for the company to hire part-time workers happy with the higher wages.

The tipping point

The number one job title held in many states these days is “truck driver”.

Truckers are the local hands of the global economy. They bring food to market, goods to stores, and goods to their buyers. They also make possible every product of the biggest American companies: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook) and Tesla. Sure, they’re all tech companies, but they all deliver products by truck or by advertising customers who do.

Truckers always have work, if they want it; they are just pressed on wages and profits. This is the reality of the professional market. And soon, this compression could become fatal to the most common jobs in the United States.

A shipping company called TuSimple was experiment with driverless semi-trailer platforms on US highways for more than a year. An early experiment showed that driverless trucks successfully operated on a 950-mile journey with a human driver as a stand-in. Then, months later, the company completed an 80-mile journey without any humans on board.

In a world where many large warehouses and retail stores can be outfitted with standardized loading ports and software, it’s not hard to see certain types of trucking routes supported by technology. There are challenges, yes, but we’ve reached the “when, not if” part of the debate.

These systems will eventually be safe and effective. More profitable than ever. And there will be humans in a room somewhere moving trucks on a video screen. But not as many of them. And they will have to know computers as well as today’s truckers know diesel engines and where to park smokies.

Yes, companies in all industries are exploring automation more. They will soon deploy this new technology. But the truth, and the problem, of our current working lives is that we are already automated even when human beings are doing the work.

I’m writing this from home on a freelance contract. My day job awaits me in another tab. My son makes sandwiches at Subway and stares eerily at the quiet hell of the GrubHub delivery driver, tethered to alerts on his phone.

Thus, we must answer several important questions now.

Where is human labor and what does it consist of?

How can we locate this work in places that need jobs?

What is our responsibility towards places devastated by deindustrialization and automation?

As our jobs in heavy industry and retail become more specialized (higher pay) but automated (fewer people), how do we design our communities to change with this inescapable fact?

And then, last but not least, what are we doing for all those left behind?

The future is already here. We can trample lost ways of life and nostalgic memories of times when advanced training, higher level thinking and entrepreneurship were not necessary to lead a good life in my native iron chain or in similar places. Go ahead. Take a year. Or two. Or ten. The automation is here and it will eat your nostalgia like a plate of mozzarella sticks right before it eats you.

If we want the lowest prices and the greatest amenities, no matter what, we become active participants in an automated economy. If we want total efficiency and safety in the American workplace, society will pay for that privilege.

Who, then, really deserves the benefits? What are we worth then?

I find myself contemplating the shovel in my garage and what I could do with it. Honestly, I do not know. Not yet.

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer for the Northern Minnesota Iron Range and a regular contributor to the Minnesota Reformer, which first published this essay.

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